The Lucille Lortel Awards are like the Academy Awards for the Off-Broadway crowd. Each year, for the past 25 years, the Lucille Lortel Awards have been presented through the Off-Broadway League by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Foundation. The event celebrates outstanding achievement in Off-Broadway and benefits the Actors Fund. In fact, it was Lucille Lortel, herself, who created the Foundation to preserve and support Off-Broadway pursuits.
With that in mind, the Lucille Lortel Award is a huge honor and a significant milestone to any recipient. This year’s award ceremony was hosted by Bryan Batt and Bebe Neuwirth (photo, above) at Terminal 5 on West 56th Street. But to understand the meaning of the award, one must take a journey back in time with the award’s illustrious namesake – actress, producer, benefactor: Lucille Lortel.
Lucille Lortel (above) began her career in the 1920s as a theatre actress. With her 1925 Broadway debut, she appeared alongside Helen Hayes in Caesar and Cleopatra. Lucille acted for many years but through marriage, she reluctantly found herself amidst the socialite community and struggled to find balance between expressing herself through her art and maintaining social respectability for the sake of her husband, industrialist Louis Schweitzer. In 1947, Lucille took matters into her own hands and founded the White Barn Theatre in an old horse barn on the estate she and her husband shared in Westport, Connecticut. Now that she had some control over what she produced, she favored the production of experimental works and supported new creative voices – everyone from actors, writers and composers to directors and designers – while opening new doors of expression for already established artists. If you look at the partial list of works on www.Lortel.org, there are a couple of standouts (at least from this writer’s perspective) including a 1960 production of Samuel Beckett’s Embers and a 1966 production of Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
It seems Lucille’s combined dedication both to her art and husband paid off. In 1955, Schweitzer presented his wife with an anniversary gift of the Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. The opening performance in the newly re-opened theatre was a Marc Blitzstein translation of The Threepenny Opera, which ran for seven years becoming the only Off-Broadway production to win a Tony Award. In 1981, the year Lucille turned 81, the theatre was renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre in her honor. Aside from the re-naming, the 1980s were a kind of a golden age for the theatre with some groundbreaking performances and other significant happenings. In 1985, for example, Lucille produced Gertrude Stein and a Companion starring Jan Miner and Marian Seldes. The production, which had originated at the White Barn Theatre in Westport was recorded and broadcast on Bravo Television Network as well as some Canadian television networks. The production received the National Education Film and Video Award for historical biographies.
1987 saw the beginning of a multi-year run of the Robert Harling hit play Steel Magnolias (which later became the mega-hit 1989 film of the same name featuring a celebrated cast that included Sally Fields, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Dylan McDermott and Tom Skerritt). Most recently, the Lucille Lortel Theatre housed the production of The Pride (photo, above), winner of a 2010 Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor (Adam James).
Lucille Lortel dedicated her life to Off-Broadway, nurturing outstanding talent suited to a freer creative environment. Her wish – that the work and the creative process would continue long after her death – led to her bequeathing the theatre to the Lucille Lortel Foundation stipulating a policy of not-for-profit productions only, thus maintaining the integrity of the work. Lucille Lortel died in April 1999.
The awards ceremony, like Lucille herself, is understated and an interesting balance of genres (The Toxic Avenger received four nominations, for instance: Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Choreographer, Outstanding Featured Actress and Outstanding Sound Design), craftsmanship, imagination and finely honed executions of theatre classics like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie which was honored this week with Lortel awards for Outstanding Revival (produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Long Wharf Theatre) and Outstanding Lead Actress (Judith Ivey).
The 2010 Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award went to Producer Daryl Roth (above) for her extensive résumé of Off-Broadway accomplishments. Though she’s considered a woman of substance with respect to significant Broadway successes, she says Off-Broadway holds a special place in her heart. She originally met Lucille Lortel, affectionately titled the “Queen of off-Broadway,” early in her career.
Early in her career, Daryl produced a play at the Lortel Theatre called The Baby Dance. Years later (by the mid-nineties), Daryl produced Camping with Henry and Tom, again in the Lortel Theatre. “I’d worked in her theatre twice and she was very supportive and always very loving,” Daryl says. “The award is very meaningful to me because of my relationship with Lucille and because I know how much Off-Broadway meant to her and I believe as strongly as she did in producing Off-Broadway and keeping it alive through all of the challenges.”
In many ways, the work of the two women bears resemblance in tone and character. Like Lucille Lortel did in her own time, Daryl Roth supports new work and new playwrights as well as mentoring theatre artists. Both Lucille and Daryl have their own theatres (the Lucille Lortel Theatre is located at 121 Christopher Street and the Daryl Roth Theatre is at 101 East 15th Street). “I’ve tried to take a page from her book,” Daryl says. “It’s special to get an award in her name.”
At the Lortel Awards, Daryl was introduced by actors Charles Busch and Julie Halston and her own son, Producer Jordan Roth, President of Jujamcyn Theaters, who said, “Profoundly loyal, she finds great joy and meaning in supporting an artist’s work over time – over many productions, not just the one that looks to be the hit…and she goes nowhere without a stack of flyers in her purse!” (Photo at top shows, from left: Julie Halston, Daryl Roth, Jordan Roth, and Charles Busch).
Daryl Roth has produced 62 plays. Those plays, collectively, have been nominated for 53 Tony Awards, 43 Drama Desk Awards, 38 Lucille Lortel Awards and have won six Pulitzer Prizes—a record. (Click here to see our Woman Around Town article on Daryl).
The 2010 Lucille Lortel Awards:
Outstanding Play: The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Written by Horton Foote, Produced by Signature Theatre Company and Hartford Stage
Outstanding Revival: The Glass Menagerie, Written by Tennessee Williams, Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Long Wharf Theatre
Outstanding Solo Show: A Boy and His Soul, Written and performed by Colman Domingo, Produced by Vineyard Theatre
Outstanding Director: David Cromer, When the Rain Stops Falling
Outstanding Choreographer: Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys
Outstanding Lead Actor: Michael Urie, The Temperamentals
Outstanding Lead Actress: Judith Ivey, The Glass Menagerie
Outstanding Featured Actor: Adam James, The Pride
Outstanding Featured Actress: Mary Beth Hurt, When the Rain Stops
Outstanding Scenic Design: David Korins, When the Rain Stops
Outstanding Costume Design: Clint Ramos, So Help Me God
Outstanding Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau, When the Rain Stops Falling
Outstanding Sound Design: Fitz Patton, When the Rain Stops Falling
Outstanding Body of Work: Lincoln Center Theater
Lifetime Achievement Award: Daryl Roth